Above depiction from the siege of Multan. From the book Mooltan, during and after the siege: Being twenty-one drawings, from sketches taken on the spot Unknown Binding – 1849, by John Dunlop.
The Siege of Multan was a contest between the city and state of Multan and the British East India Company. The siege lasted between 19 April 1848, when a rebellion in the city against a ruler imposed by the East India Company precipitated the Second Anglo-Sikh War, and 22 January 1849, when the last defenders surrendered.
Multan had been captured and incorporated into the Sikh Empire of Ranjit Singh in 1818. In 1845, although the population was almost half Muslim, it was ruled by a Hindu vassal, Dewan Mulraj. In that year, the First Anglo-Sikh War broke out, and was won by the British East India Company. There was an uneasy peace for three years, during which Mulraj attempted to maintain practical independence while being nominally subject to the East India Company.
Early in 1848, the newly appointed Commissioner in the Punjab, Sir Frederick Currie, demanded that Mulraj pay duties and taxes previously paid to the central Durbar of the Sikh Empire and now in arrears. Mulraj attempted to forestall a complete annexation of Multan by abdicating in favour of his son. Currie nevertheless decided to impose a compliant Sikh ruler, Sardar Khan Singh, who was to be accompanied by a British Political Agent, Patrick Vans Agnew.
On 18 April, Vans Agnew and another officer, Lieutenant Anderson from the East India Company’s Bombay Army, arrived outside Multan with a small escort of Gurkhas. The next day, Mulraj conducted Khan Singh and the two British officers to the citadel and handed over the keys, with no sign of hostility. As the two officers began to ride out of the citadel, a soldier from Mulraj’s army attacked Vans Agnew. This may have been the sign for a concerted attack, as a mob surrounded and attacked them. Mulraj’s troops either stood by, or joined the mob. Both officers were wounded, and they and Khan Singh retired to a Mosque outside the city, where Anderson wrote a plea for help. A despatch rider carried it to Currie in Lahore, while a second took a copy via a different route, across the Indus River.
During the night, most of Vans Agnew’s escort left. Next morning, the mob pushed Khan Singh aside and hacked the two British officers to death.
Mulraj had probably not been a party to the conspiracy among his own troops. He nevertheless regarded himself as committed to rebellion by their actions. He presented Vans Agnew’s head to Khan Singh and told him to take it back to Currie.
Image: Diwan Mulraj from A year on the Punjab frontier, in 1848-49 by Edwardes, Herbert B. (Herbert Benjamin), Sir,
The Battle of Kineyri
The British Political Agent in Bannu, Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, took the first steps to suppress Mulraj’s revolt. He intercepted the second copy of Vans Agnew’s letter to Currie, and immediately began to concentrate troops. He, and other junior British officers were to be frustrated by Currie in Lahore, who proposed to do nothing during the Hot Weather and Monsoon seasons. This was partly for reasons of economy and lack of preparation, but he was supported by the Governor General of Bengal, Lord Dalhousie and the Commander-in-Chief of the Bengal Army, Sir Hugh Gough, who did not wish to expose European troops to a campaign during the harsh weather. Meanwhile, Mulraj was reinforced by several other regiments of the Sikh Khalsa Army, the army of the Sikh empire, which rebelled or deserted. He also took other measures to strengthen his defences, digging up guns which had previously been buried and enlisting more troops.
In early June, Edwardes began to lead an army against Multan. On 18 June, his leading troops (Pashtun irregulars) crossed the Chenab River on a ferry boat. They were engaged by Mulraj’s artillery and forced to take cover for several hours. Mulraj’s infantry and cavalry began to advance but Edwardes was reinforced by two regiments of the Sikh Khalsa Army under Colonel Van Cortlandt, an Anglo-Indian soldier of fortune. Van Cortlandt’s artillery caused heavy losses among the Multani troops and Edwardes’s Pashtuns counter-attacked. Mulraj’s forces retreated to Multan, having suffered 500 casualties and lost six guns.
Image: Sir Herbert Benjamin Edwardes; George Lawrence; Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence. © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG x19914
Raja Sher Singh’s starts a rebellion
Once Currie learned of this victory, he at last ordered a comparatively small force from the East India Company’s Bengal Army under General Whish to begin the siege of Multan. As it was too small to encircle the city, Currie decided to reinforce them and Edwardes with a substantial detachment of the Khalsa under Sher Singh Attariwalla. The appointment of Sher Singh alarmed many junior Political Agents, as his father, Chattar Singh Attariwalla, was apparently openly preparing to revolt in Hazara to the north of the Punjab. Despite warnings, Currie nevertheless ordered a detachment from Chattar Singh’s army under his second in command, Jundial Singh, to reinforce Sher Singh. This allowed Jundial Singh and other officers to influence Sher Singh and spread disaffection among his regiments.
On 14 September, Sher Singh openly rebelled against the East India Company. This left the East India Company’s forces too weak to maintain the siege, and they were forced to retreat. Most of Edwardes’s troops and the Bahawalpur troops dispersed to their homes. Sher Singh and Mulraj nevertheless were not prepared to cooperate. At a meeting at a neutral mosque outside the city, it was agreed that Sher Singh would move north into the mainly Sikh-populated areas of the Punjab.
Late in November, Whish was reinforced by a substantial force from the East India Company’s Bombay Army. Some observers claimed that the sepoys of the Bombay contingent, being of generally lower caste than those of the Bengal Army, were more willing and skilled at comparatively menial tasks such as digging trenches. Whish’s combined force amounted to 32,000, of which 15,000 were from the British Army or European (mainly Irish) troops of the Bengal and Bombay armies. He also had 150 pieces of artillery, many of which were heavy guns or mortars. It was comparatively easy to supply this large force, as Multan lay near the Indus River, and steamships could bring supplies some way up the river and to within a short distance of the city.
Inside the city, Mulraj commanded 12,000 troops, with 54 guns and 12 mortars. (Some sources state that 80 guns were mounted in the citadel, though some of these may have been obsolete or decorative pieces).
On 27 December, Whish ordered four columns of troops to attack the suburbs. Mulraj’s forces were driven back into the city, and Whish’s force set up batteries 500 yards from the city walls. Under cover of their fire, breaching batteries were set up only 80 yards from the walls, and created two breaches in them while causing great damage in the city. On 30 December, the main magazine in the citadel exploded, killing 800 of the defenders. Mulraj nevertheless maintained his fire and sent a defiant message to Whish, stating that he still had enough powder to last a year. He attempted to mount a sortie against the besiegers on 31 December but this was driven back.
Whish ordered a general assault on 2 January 1849. The attackers successfully scaled the breaches, and the battle became a bloody house-to-house fight in the city, in which many defenders and civilians were killed indiscriminately. Whish ordered the civilians to be herded into the main square; he may have intended to spare them from further fighting but the action of corralling them was also accompanied by further casualties.
With the fall of the city, only the already-scarred citadel remained, but it held out for another fortnight against heavy bombardment. On 18 January, Whish’s sappers exploded three mines under its walls, causing heavy losses and destroying large sections of its walls. Mulraj offered to surrender if his life was spared, but Whish insisted on unconditional surrender, and on 22 January, Mulraj gave himself up, with 550 men.
Mulraj was placed on trial for the murders of Vans Agnew and Anderson. He was cleared of premeditated murder, but was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact, in that he had rewarded the murderers and openly used the deaths as pretext for rebellion. (Under British law at the time, an “accessory after the fact” of a crime was liable to the same punishment as the criminal.) Mulraj was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to exile for life.
It has been suggested that the problems in Multan was a local disturbance and should have been dealt with differently.
The Lahore Durbar did not start the outbreak in the Multan and yet the Punjab was annexed as a result of this.